Thirteen minutes separated Andre Blumberg from success and failure at the Leadville 100 mile run last weekend. Just 13, mind you, because in the world of ultra-running, 13 minutes is like a millisecond in a 100-metre dash.
So, by the skin of his teeth, the Hong Kong-based German remains on track to complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. He completed Leadville in 29 hours 28 minutes and 55 seconds – his third 100-mile race in seven weeks – and has just one more to conquer, the Wasatch Front on Sept 6, to write his name in the relatively sparse hall of fame of Grand Slammers.
It was a brutal battle between Blumberg and the high-altitude Leadville course, but it was mental warfare rather than physical.
Leadville is a small town in Colorado at about 3,100 metres elevation. At such an altitude, breathing can be difficult due to the lower concentration of oxygen in the air. Blumberg, an IT director, couldn’t afford the luxury of time to arrive at Leadville early to acclimate. So last year he bought an altitude tent to simulate the conditions and has been sleeping in it every night in his Mei Foo apartment.
Arriving two days before the race, just getting out of the car and unloading his luggage left him huffing and puffing. His race strategy was therefore to start really easy.
“Even when running on the flat sections, your heart rate is much higher than normal. You’re out of breath quicker. You basically have to pace yourself and go slower,” he says. “For many sections I walked or power-hiked so that I wouldn’t have a high heart rate and I would save energy. The first couple of hours were a bit rough, but after five to six hours it was a bit easier, so I could keep a pretty good effort up afterwards.
“But the altitude also has an effect on your digestion. The first few hours was fine and I had my normal powder and gels and aid station food and so on, but after six to seven hours I started to feel a bit uneasy and had to be very delicate in terms of what I ate. Taking in energy was quite hard, and as a result my energy levels were quite low.”
The race course is out-and-back, with the turn-around marked by Hope Pass, the highest point in the race at about 3,840 metres elevation. This means competitors go up and down the pass (about 1,200 metres elevation gain), U-turn, and do it again to head back to the finish line.
As Blumberg climbed Hope Pass for a second time, failure seemed a certainty. He needed to be at the next checkpoint, Twin Lakes, by 17 hours 45 minutes on the race clock. Doing the numbers in his head, he realised he wasn’t going to make it.
“I sure could finish the race in 30 hours, and I always have a good surge in the last third [of a race]. But that wouldn't help me with meeting the next intermediary cutoff,” says Blumberg. “I realised that I was giving it the best I can, and I quickly made peace with the idea that this would be a DNF [or ‘did not finish’] and the end of the Grand Slam.”
Then, out of the blue, hope appeared in the form of Kevin Koch, a pacer for a runner who had dropped out at an earlier aid station. While Blumberg has a strict personal policy of not using pacers (although legal for the Grand Slam series of races), with the looming DNF, he decided to ease up on his principles.
“Kevin asked, ‘Do you need help, do you need some company?’ We started chatting a bit, and I said, if you don’t mind to stick around a bit, we could go back together to Twin Lakes,” recounts Blumberg.
“Kevin knew the course quite well because he has raced it once or twice and paced others a few times before, so he had a pretty good understanding of how long it would take us to get to the aid station.
“As he was walking uphill in front of me, I felt more motivated to push harder than being on my own… In the end we made the checkpoint with just 13 minutes to spare.”
Four runners attempting the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning dropped out at Leadville, leaving only 22 of the 31 who started the series on June 29.
The final race, the Wasatch Front 100, is held in Utah and stretches from East Mountain Wilderness Park to Soldier Hollow. Of the four races in the series, it has the most total cumulative elevation gain – about 8,100 metres – and also the only one with a cut-off of 36 hours instead of 30.
“It has a lot of technical sections and a lot of variance in terms of weather – it can be very hot, but it can hail and snow as well,” says Blumberg.
But with Leadville safely in the bag, he says he is optimistic of completing the Slam.
“Unless I roll an ankle or get injured, I’m pretty confident I can finish it,” he says. “The time doesn’t matter. I’m shooting for 32 or 33 hours. I’m pretty confident I can do it.”
How hard was it without having your wife, Paper, around as support crew for the first time in the series?
It was not really a big problem because I had drop bags; it just took a bit longer at the aid stations.But emotionally and mentally, there’s certainly a difference and I think that’s certainly something that spurs you on more when you have crew, family or friends around. In the first two events I looked at my timing sheet, and I knew I was going to see Paper in a few hours, so that’s something to look forward to. At Leadville, I used mental bridges to keep me going. I knew she was at home looking at her computer tracking me, and that spurred me on a bit.
My key learning really was when I faced the challenge to get to the turnaround aid station by the cut-off, and I was really struggling going back up that mountain a second time, I felt that I didn’t quite have the mental strength to carry me through. Although I’ve done a few 100 milers and am reasonably strong mentally, a few thoughts crept into my mind: that maybe it’s not meant to be, that I didn’t take my training seriously.
When Kevin came along out of the blue, that gave me mental strength. He didn’t really do anything except to be there. So I made the cut-off and that renewed my confidence, and from then on I knew I had it in the bag.
You mentioned after Western States that you thought using pacers felt a bit like cheating. But in this case, a pacer saved your race?
Just before I met Kevin, as I was looking at how hard it would be to get to the cut-off, I was thinking that maybe I should have had a pacer. Actually, in this race you can also have mules as well, meaning that the pacer is also allowed to carry your stuff. If someone carries your 5kg backpack, especially if you have a very steep long hill, it’s much easier. Maybe only 10 per cent of the runners didn’t have pacers.
It’s not my principle to have pacers, really, but when Kevin came along, I guess in a desperate situation you take unusual measures. I said, maybe I should relax my standards a bit. It obviously wasn’t illegal anything; it was part of the rules. He didn’t carry my stuff. He was just basically walking ahead of me, that was all.
I was fatigued as well, having done three 100 milers in seven weeks. Other things came together – jet lag, altitude, didn’t have good enough nutrition – so sort of a perfect storm, and I decided I would relax my standards a bit and I’ll go with Kevin.
Afterwards I thought about what I should do for the next one, maybe if I should ask people to pace me. I have kept the conclusion that I still want to do it on my own, and if I get into trouble I’d maybe team up with another runner.
I still like to do it on my own, so that if I fail or have a slow time then I have only myself to blame and not anyone else.
What can you do from now to Wasatch to make yourself mentally stronger?
I think the challenge was really that during the moment when you’re very weak and you’re out of energy and very tired, you need to think beyond that. And at that moment it’s easiest to give in, and say well I’ve tried hard, you come up with excuses, there’s a little devil in your mind that tries to make it very easy to slow down or to drop out. But looking, the emotion of going to the finish line, waking up the next morning and knowing I’ve finished it, three down and only one to go, it’s just unbelievably good.
Going forward, I just need to channel my energy more and project beyond the immediate now and pain and weakness. Especially for the next one because it’s really between me and the grand slam, it’s just this race, it’s just this finish line that’s coming up. So it’s my mental prep for the last one that’s going to be the key focus. It’s not just finishing one race but finishing the whole series.
But Leadville was hard. They had a completion rate of 52 per cent. It’s the highest rate of all four races. We had four grand slammers drop out in Leadville, and two of the four are superfit guys. They were very quick in the first two races, but one was hit by altitude and the other a hip injury.
Do you picture the finish line in your mind and how it’s going to feel to complete the Slam?
As this stage I don’t think so much of the finish line. I look at the elevation chart, the maps, reports from people who’ve done it previously, watch YouTube videos. I try to get a better understanding, try to get an idea of what challenges there are. At this stage, two weeks out, I’m focusing on what do I need to prepare for the race, studying the terrain, the weather, what time sun goes up, goes down, preparing logistics, supplements, material in the drop bags in terms of food, clothes and lighting.
On flight back from LA I was already starting to prepare for Wasatch. I will have 90 per cent planned out by the end of this week. I look at it every day. There’s a big A3 printout of the map in my bedroom on the wall. Every morning I get up, I take my toothbrush and I stand in front of the door and brush my teeth and I look at that map. Every day before I go to bed I look at it, really to visualise what the route is, which aid stations have crew, etc.
If I do all of this, the course will seem more familiar than if I haven’t been there. So I’m trying to trick the mind.
You sound like a man possessed, you sound obsessive. Do you think ultrarunners need to be a bit OCD to do this?
You could say it’s obsessive, I could counter argue that it’s proper planning or proper prepreparation. What are the odds? I’ve never run it, four 100 milers in 10 weeks, have jet lag, my body is quite weak now... all the odds are against me. And basically what I’m saying is it’s not really obsession, but what I can do to plan for it and increase my chances of completing the grand slam. Doing any training now will do no good. The focus is all about recovery and one or two light runs in the next couple of weeks, a bit of climbing with my poles. There’s no more time to do training, it will not make a difference. So really the mental aspect and planning, and that’s why the visualisation is not so much obsession but it’s helping to overcome it and to be mentally stronger.
Doing ultra is not about just physical fitness – far from it. I’ve really not trained a lot for this grand slam; it’s really just the mental aspect that’s most important. Again the guys who dropped out, ran 20 hour grand slams, I took 26 hours. They’re in the mid-20s, super fit, but they didn’t finish and I did. Why? Maybe it’s the mental aspect.